The films of Terrence Malick

Reclusive master of cinema.

The Thin Red Line

In Terrence Malick’s war epic The Thin Red Line, Private Witt, played by Jim Caviezel, is like a drifting mystic among his compatriots. He hates war, but he’s trapped in it. He goes AWOL, deserting to a Melanesian island. After living with the native community, he idealizes them, feeling that he’s found a people living in harmony. Later, he offers solace to his petrified fellow soldiers. After a battle, he’s silently empathetic to captured POWs. Conversely, Sean Penn’s Sgt. Edward Welsh is a hardened and reclusive man, war weary, and unlike Witt is deferential to authority. Both are trying to survive in their own way. Penn’s character is an older brother figure to Caviezel’s, advising him to fall in line to make it out of the war. In one beautiful scene, Witt approaches Welsh on the veranda of an abandoned house in the dense jungle during a lull in fighting.

“Why do you always make yourself out like a rock,” Witt asks, circling the veranda. “One day I can come up and talk to you. By the next day it’s like we never even met.” Witt is looking up at the soft sky visible through the collapsed roof. The camera is gently panning between them. Welsh is critical of Witt’s idealism, and incredulous of his ability to remain serene among the chaos. “You still believing in the beautiful light are ya?” Welsh asks, sparking a cigarette and leaning on the balcony. “I still see a spark in you,” Witt responds.

As Caviezel relates the story in the documentary Rosy Fingered Dawn, the words were lifted from an on-set conversation between Caviezel and Penn, and reflected their real relationship. Malick wrote it into the movie during filming. This is how Malick works — his films are improvisational experiments. He writes and re-writes on set, instructs his crew to capture nature, light, flora and fauna on the fly, often panning away from actors in the middle of scenes, regardless of how crucial they are to the plot (if there is one). The script serves as a general outline, a framework to work around, resulting in a finished product vastly different from the original concept. Malick is infamous for cutting out whole performances, irrespective of how famous the actor. When working he simply finds what’s there and captures the moment.

A defining feature of most of Malick’s work is the overlapping voice-over narrations that run throughout the flms. They’re a lyrical pastiche of memories, philosophical queries, apprehension and spiritual yearning. Malick’s characters are constantly appraising their lives, and searching for their own place and role in humanity. These digressions ultimately coalesce into perceptible ideas and themes much bigger than themselves. In all his films, the dominant narrative is of people trying to find a return to grace. In the perfect Days of Heaven, a post-war couple flees south to start a new life on the Texas Panhandle after the man commits a tragic crime at his workplace in a Chicago steel mill. In The New World, Malick portrays the John Smith and Pocahontas tale, and the disharmony that ensues in the Native Americans’ way of life after Europeans first settle on the continent. In The Thin Red Line, soldiers in WWII struggle to retain their innocence amongst their grisly environment. His characters grapple with the darkness that fractures them, and attempt to piece together an unblemished past.

In Tree of Life (2011), based on his own upbringing and which focuses on the life of a typical American family in the 50’s, the film plays like a visual stream of consciousness analysis, where he unpacks the personal and social weight of seemingly ordinary scenes, extending them into the past, making them three dimensional, and siphoning all the impalpable elements that contribute to the whole of the subject being observed. It‘s an excellent petal by petal detailing of man’s efforts to make sense of creation. Life contains many tangential sequences, one going back to the founding of this world and even the beginning of the universe.

As of late, Malick has been unusually prolific. 2015’s Knight of Cups, with Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, will be his third film in four years. After releasing Days of Heaven in 1978, he was so disillusioned by the film business that he retreated to Paris, studying, travelling, and occasionally writing scripts. He came out of the extended hiatus with The Thin Red Line in ’98, and top tier talent in Hollywood scrambled to work with him (he turned down several mega-stars, fearing they’d distract from the story). He is notoriously withdrawn from public life, never granting interviews, apparently only focused on his art. In Knight of Cups Malick examines the same industry that alienated him, chronicling a successful screenwriter trying to find himself after getting lost in the hedonism of Hollywood. Early reviews suggest it that it adheres to his inimitable style, citing it as another unique filmgoing experience.